Crime Fiction Festival in N. Ireland

To Belfast Last weekend for the Noireland International Crime Fiction Festival held in The Europa Hotel and back home laden with books by writers mostly new to me.   I realize that I have been in a rut, buying or borrowing only familiar writers, but listening to the panels of speakers at the Crime LitFest and browsing through the piles of books on the stands, I uncovered a whole new world.Noireland

And what a world I found at Noireland.  Talks and panel events took place from Friday night to late Sunday afternoon and I was able to dip in and out as I wished.   I managed to catch most of them.  They ranged from An Englishwoman, An Irishwoman and a Scotswoman walk into the Noir which brought together the witty trio of Belinda Bauer, Jo Spain and Denise Mina, to a discussion between two of the top writers in the genre, Stuart MacBride and Adrian McKinty in conversation about their writing life.

Various panels of writers took to the stage to discuss themes that ranged from The Victim, which looked at the human being at the heart of the crime, through True Crime and Podcasts, Gothic Crime, The Outsider (the loner, one of the tropes of crime fiction), Chillin’ like a Villain which explored the nature of the Villain in crime, Political Villainy, right down to our very own Brexit Means …..  And if you think it was all serious, “Catch yourself on” as they say in Belfast, this was all about the craic and the jokes fell fast and furious even as the crimes discussed were bloody and nerve-jangling.

Brian O’Neill (

Difficult to chose a favourite session but I think I have to put in ace position the late evening reading by actor Adrian Dunbar of two spine-tingling chapters from John Connolly’s new novel, “A Book of Bones”.   Hard though it was to disassociate the man from his TV character of DCI Ted Hastings in Line of Fire his inspired reading meant that he owned the narrator’s character within a few seconds of him starting to read.  A cliché I know, but you could hear the proverbial pin drop.

This was a masterclass in reading aloud and holding an audience, but the man is an actor and a Northern Irish citizen so he was at home.


Another highlight for me was Anthony Horowitz talking about his writing career which spans books for young adults, the Alex Rider books, his Sherlock Holmes novels, Foyle’s War on TV, his writing for Midsomer Murders, his James Bond novels and how he was chosen by the Fleming Estate to write these.  Fewer people will know that he is a wonderful raconteur and notable wit when on stage.

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Writers like Eoin McNamee, Haylen Beck, Claire Allan, Dervla McTiernan, Stuart Turton, Gerald Brennan, Sarah Vaughn, M.J. Arlidge and Will Dean who had flown in from his home in Sweden, ranged over topics such as how they get into their victim’s heads, the human being at the heart of the crime, the extremes that motherhood can drive a woman to, and how true crimes have influenced the writing of crime novels.

Ann Cleeves in discussion
Ann Cleeves in discussion

The final session was Ann Cleeves in conversation with Brian McGilloway talking about her long career in writing and how she came to develop the characters of Jimmy Perez in Shetland, and DCI Vera Stanhope in the long-running Vera.  A fascinating insight into the workings of a true crime writer.

Part of the Bookstand

I haven’t named every writer who took part in the Festival: I have listed them below, but a special mention must go to No Alibis bookshop in Belfast without whom this would not have taken place.  The owner, David Torrans, is passionate about books, specializes in mystery and detective fiction and is involved in the community to the extent that he also uses the bookshop as a community venue for literary events and concerts, Van Morrison being just one who performed there.

Books bought from No Alibis Bookshop are free of postage in the UK so if you want to check out what’s available, log on to, buy a book and support an independent bookseller.  If you are in Belfast, you’ll find the shop at 83 Botanic Ave, Belfast BT7 1JL and they even open on Sunday mornings.

Eat your heart out Amazon.

Other writers appearing at the Noireland International Crime Fiction Festival and not mentioned above:

Eoin McNamee, Haylen Beck, Claire Allen, Asia MacKay, Elodie Harper, Dervla McTiernan, Stuart Turton, Laura Purcell, Caroline Lee, William Ryan, Martyn Waites, Aidan Conway, Declan Hughes, Adam Handy, Thomas Enger, Renee Knight, James Swallow, Douglas Lindsay, Mason Cross, Steve Cavanagh, Karen Hamilton, Elly Griffiths, and D.B. John.


WADI RUM – Jordan’s Natural Park

A few hours drive from Amman along the King’s Highway that cuts through the desert and you can be in the stunning nature reserve of Wadi Rum, for me the second unmissable destination in all Jordan.  Familiar to movie-goers from the David Lean film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, it was one of  the principal encampments during World War I for the attack on the Ottamans by Lawrence and the Arab Army of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the Hashemite leader of the Great Arab Revolt.

Wadi Rum is a timeless place, virtually untouched by humanity and stunning in its magnificence.  The weather and the winds have carved the imposing, towering towers of rocks that surge out of the earth like skyscrapers, so elegantly described by T.E. Lawrence as “vast, echoing and God-like…”

Seven Pillars of Wisdom (2 on other side) - Copy
Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (the other 2 are on the other side)

The totally natural Wadi Rum, described by Lawrence in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom as “landscape that refused to be an accessory ” was a caravan route during Nabatean times, and those who trek or hike through the canyons and the red sandstone hills will come across stones and rocks inscribed with the graffiti of two thousand years ago.  I cannot vouch for the age of the graffiti below: my guide assured me that it was thousands of years old but I’m naturally sceptical when around guides so I’ll pass on that one.

Graffitti - even in the desert of Wadi Rum - Copy

Monolithic rocks surge from the desert floor to heights of 1,750 metres offering a challenge to serious mountaineers.  Less strenuous exercise like trekking or hiking in the empty spaces, offers the enjoyment of  exploring the canyons, the water holes and the 4000-year-old rock drawings in this vast wilderness.


Trekkers should be well-equipped and always carry a map of the area, a compass, plenty of water, sunblock and a hat.  It is easy to get lost in this maze of mountains and desert, so it’s best to take a Bedouin guide if at all possible.

To Jordan’s credit there are no hotels in Wadi Rum, but camping is permitted.  A night spent under the star-studded sky as the sunset deepens the shadows and colours the rocks, to wake at first light to see them change again from brown to reddish-pink, is a life-affirming event you will never forget.

Although there are no cafés in the desert you may come across of the black, low-slung tents made from goat’s hair where Bedu hospitality ensures that you will be offered a refreshing cup of tea and a chance to get up close and personal with the pack animals.

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Always dress modestly when visiting a Bedu area, skimpy shorts and tops will be considered disrespectful, and remember to ask permission before taking photographs of the local Bedouin.

There is a Visitor centre where the hire of guides and 4 x 4 jeeps can be made, and where bookings to spend a night in a Bedouin tent sleeping under the stars can be arranged – something everyone should do at least once in a lifetime.

Signpost Wadi Rum

Seven Pillars of Wisdom 23

AQABA – Jordan’s Red Sea Port

Perhaps reissuing the David Lean film, Lawrence of Arabia, might attract more people to Jordan as film tourism is big business these days – witness the rush to New Zealand for the Lord of the Rings films sites and Northern Ireland and Croatia for Game of Thrones sites.  And, it’s easier for us to reach Aqaba today than it was for Lawrence when he set out across the desert with the Arab Army of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the Hashemite leader of the Great Arab Revolt, in 1917.

Not far from Amman and set in a palm-fringed, sandy bay backed by purple coloured mountains and just a few kilometres from the border with Saudi Arabia, Aqaba boasts several excellent seafood restaurants, coral reefs that are a mecca for international divers and deep, indigo-coloured waters that teem with colourful marine life.   Some of the world’s best snorkelling and wreck diving is available at the Royal Diving Club just outside town where day membership for about fifteen dinars gets you a private beach, fresh-water swimming pool, changing rooms and a restaurant.  If you want to see the underwater wonderland but don’t want to get wet, glass bottomed boats leave from the two public beaches in the port.

However, there is a caveat.  I understand that since my visit to Aqaba, the place has somewhat deteriorated and although nothing can take away from the glorious waters and the beautiful fish, I understand that the showers and other facilities leave a lot to be desired and the Jetty has been closed off.  There is a plus side though, fewer people now use the Diving Club and you may have the place to yourself.

At one time 50,000 cars a month passed into Iraq through this Economic Free Zone but no longer.   However, the duty-free prices in Aqaba makes it an attractive place for shopping with the accent on jewellery, hand-woven rugs and carpets, finely decorated daggers and swords and the Dead Sea health products that spill out of the numerous little shops that cluster up the hilly streets.   Lapis Lazuli and turquise are especially good buys here.

The shopkeepers are busier with their worry beads than with their calculators and there is no pressure on you to buy the goods you are admiring.   No one tries to sell you a kaftan when you stop to finger the beaded silk robes outside the shop, no one offers you an immediate discount if you will just step inside, nor are there beggars importuning for your spare coins.

Beach scene 2

Aqaba is a perfect place to stop off for a day’s relaxation by the sea if you are mentally and physically tired from walking around Petra and absorbing the history of  that lovely place, and perhaps less so, walking around Amman.  I confess I went there because of the film as Lawrence of Arabia has always been one of my favourite films and I well remember the scene where Lawrence led the charge “To Aqaba” and I had to see for myself.  Not a bit like the film, of course,   But Wadi Rum didn’t disappoint (up next).



Jordan – Amman, Capital City

In the rush to Petra, Amman is often overlooked, but this is a pity because a day or two in Jordan’s capital reveals a wealth of historical sites, most of them dotted throughout the city, part of the daily life of the inhabitants.

The city has a well preserved Roman Theatre, a colonnaded street and a Nymphaeum: the juxtaposition of the very ancient and the modern looks perfect.  No painting in garish colours is allowed in Amman so the whole is soothing to the eye.

Entrance to Roman Theatre & Museum

Amman is built on seven hills and you should take a taxi to the most ancient part of the city, Jabal al-Qal’a which translates as ‘Citadel Hill’.  The most famous ruins here are the Roman Temple of Hercules, the Byzantine Church and the Umayyad Palace.  The gigantic sandstone blocks of this Roman Temple, part of a vast complex erected in 1200 BC by the Ammonites who gave Amman its name, are being put back together by a team of international archaeologists.  An extra bonus are the magnificent views across downtown Amman from the hill which is one of the highest points in the city.

Citadel Hill 4
The Temple of Hercules

In the nearby Archeological Museum, you’ll find the 3rd century Dead Sea Scrolls, rectangles of kidskin sewn end to end only discovered in 1947 by some Bedouin shepherds.

Looking down from Citadel Hill
Downtown Amman from Citadel Hill

From a 3000 year old culture to modern nightlife, there’s something for everyone in Amman.  You’ll find that the vendors are busier with their worry beads than with their calculators, and whether you shop in ancient souks or state of the art shopping malls, you will find no pressure on you to buy anything – a delightful change from Cairo.

Brass and Copper shop

What you will find is a pocket of traditional Arab hospitality and a people who want to extend the hand of friendship, for Jordan is a peace-loving nation and welcomes all visitors.   Amman seems to be more of a collection of adjoining villages rather than one entity with downtown having a constant rumble of traffic, markets, and bustling people. Its highlight is the Roman Theatre where the seats are chiselled out of the mountain.

Amman from Citadel Hill
Roman Theatre viewed from Citadel Hill

And as for food, I can only say “Go try for yourself”.  I never had a bad meal in two weeks in Jordan and I tried many different restaurants.

Petra, the Rose Red City of Jordan

Looking through my images of Jordan I am struck by how much it offers the visitor in terms of not only historical sites, but scenery and serenity.  Serenity may seem a strange word to use about any Middle Eastern country these days, but Jordan has always seemed to me to be like a peaceful house surrounded by warring neighbours.

The pink-hued cliffs of Petra will always be the absolute highlight of Jordan, but close behind comes the capital itself, Amman.  Then a trip to Wadi Rum where maybe you can find time to stay overnight and sleep under the desert stars, an unforgettable experience, and a side trip to Aqaba, the Red Sea port.

Royal Jordanian Police Guard
Royal Jordanian Guard at The Treasury

You approach Petra through the Siq, or chasm, a winding defile hemmed in with towering red rocks that soar nearly 100 metres into the sky before it opens dramatically on to a square dominated by the pink sandstone of the façade, (used in the final scenes of the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusades).  To emerge into the light at the end of the long walk and be faced with the glory of the Treasury is something that is hard to describe.

Approaching the City the Siq
Entry to the Treasury from the Siq

This 6th century BC world of temples, Roman theatres, monasteries and chambers carved into the red sandstone is Jordan’s best-known tourist attraction and a Unesco World Heritage Site.  Here the original inhabitants, the Nabateans, set up their city-state, defending their home with ease until 106 AD when it fell to the Romans.  After the Romans came the Byzantines, then the Crusaders, until by the 16th century Petra was all but lost to the west.   A Swiss Explorer, Louis Burckhard, penetrated the hidden city in 1812 and the world became aware of the wondrous city that had once been the centre of a trading empire that stretched from Saudi Arabia to Damascus.

The Treasury was built to impress and 2,000 years on it is still impressive.  Protected from wind and rain, the detailing on the well preserved façade is still sharp and crisp.  It is estimated that 3,000 visitors per day visit Petra during the peak season and visitors are advised to visit between 9.00–11.00 a.m. and 4.00 – 5.00 pm when there are fewer tourists and the walls of the Treasury are suffused with a reddish-pink glow.  Although 3,000  may sound a lot of people, if you cannot visit between these hours Petra is large enough to hold that amount in reasonable comfort.   However, if you are not on a tour, it will repay you to make a really early start in order to savour the utter peace and stillness of the area before the hordes descend from the cruise ships – 7.00 a.m. is perfect.

Boy on Donkey at Petra

A whole day can be spent here, more than one if time allows because there is a lot to explore, the royal tombs, the 1st century AD Theatre, and the High Sacrificial Place which is reached by climbing 700 well-cut steps past extraordinary rock colourings.  Your reward is breathtaking views over Petra from a peak 170m above Wadi Musa.  No one knows for certain what took place here, whether the sacrifices were of animal or human, but evidence of some human sacrifices in surrounding towns/cities has been found.

It will be very hot, there is no shade, so carry plenty of water.  For part of the way there is an option of taking a donkey ride or a carriage ride: the authorities discourage these because of the damage they do to the floor of Petra but they are available for those who need them.

Tijuana – in the shade of the USA

It seems we can’t escape newspaper articles, radio reports and TV programmes about the border between the USA and Mexico, and all this has led me to think of my travels along that border some years ago.  I wrote an article at the time for The Traveller magazine and I thought it might be interesting to use it as a Post on my Blog as when I was there the border seemed to benefit the American tourists almost as much as the Mexicans

So, here it is.

Tijuana Border (2)

You’ll see them every evening, peering through the holes in the fence at the patrolling agents on the US side, or astride the wall, silently waiting for sundown and their chance to make that final spurt for freedom.  These are the ‘chickens’ – illegal immigrants who nightly swarm across the high steel fence that snakes inland from Tijuana to San Diego.  Like the old Berlin Wall, this one also has arc lights and guards equipped with night-vision cameras.

San Diego County, USA, borders Mexico for approximately 70 miles but the wall itself runs for only 14 of them.  Further north, the immigrants risk a gruelling three or four day journey across tough, arid terrain, but from Tijuana to the suburbs of San Diego it is only a short run.  Joselito spoke for them all.  “If we don’t make it tonight, there is a chance of finding some sort of job while we wait for another day.  So we stay”.

Tijana Border

Tijuana is a tough place to live: it is noisy and dirty, the crime rate is high and drugs are easily available, but for the scores of people who arrive daily from all over Mexico, this frontier town is the gateway to new beginnings and new hopes,  Many who come here to try their luck at crossing the border end up finding ways to support themselves and their families in Tijuana itself.

You will see them on the side-streets of the city: the brick-makers who squat by the streams, the farriers who tool and fashion the graceful Mexican saddles and boots, the touts who stand by the sidewalk, a damaged car door in one hand and a panel-beater in the other.  Their customers are Americans who drive their cars across the border for high calibre work at one-tenth of what it would cost in California.

That’s not the only thing that attracts Americans to Tijuana.  Drugs and dental treatments that are expensive in the United States are cheap and readily available in this border city.  It is almost certain that the American matrons you see clutching  pharmacy bags have just picked up a six-month supply of Prozac at giveaway prices, a supply of chemotherapy treatment or a mixed bag of sleeping pills and wake-up pills.

Rich and poor live in close proximity here.  There are modest houses of concrete and metal alongside magnificent colonial-style mansions, interspersed with crazily leaning shacks.  Plastic containers, splashed recklessly with scarlet and yellow paint and filled with scented red and pink geraniums, define the ‘garden’ space in front of these dwellings.  Here and there on end walls are brilliant murals of darkly exotic flowers and oceans and skies of an impossible blue, a naive art that owes more to the capacity for gaiety and colour in the Mexican temperament than to any innate artistic talents.  Even here, strolling groups of traditionally dressed Mariachi bands want to serenade you and if you have suffered six versions of  Quantanamera in 30 minutes it may be prudent to know the title of one or two other Mexican songs.


Twenty years ago, Tijuana was little more than a clutch of ragged adobe houses and a few stores, a border town of such searing poverty and dirt that I was glad to leave it.  Today it is a city in its own right, a city that has a future – of sorts.  Above all, it has a young and vibrant population, one of the reasons why Samsung, Sanyo, General Electric, Ford and other multinationals have invested billions of dollars in the city and why they currently employ more than 100,000 workers here.  The fact that there is work for thousands where before there was nothing will not halt the border crossings, but it makes the plight of the ‘chickens’ less hopeless and enables some of them to remain in their own country.

Meanwhile, the steel border, illuminated at night, adds a frisson of excitement, a charge, to life in Tijuana.  And those gaunt figures that sit astride it today will be followed, inevitably, by others tomorrow.





Syracuse – The Other Bits

After my earlier Post on the Greek and Roman theatres in Syracuse, I thought I’d like to show you a few of the more colourful parts of the city.   I hope you’ll enjoy the photographs that follow of the transparent seas around the island, Piazza Archimede and its magnificent fountain, the food market, a few more ruins – for how could one not include them as they are part of the street furniture.

Just to recap.  In the 5th century, when Dionysus reigned, Syracuse was one of the biggest and most powerful cities in the Mediterranean, embellished by gardens, fountains, palaces and temples.   Plato called it “an ideal city”, one of enormous military power capable of withstanding the might of Athens and Carthage. 

Today, what remains of those days of glory, is preserved and presented to the visitor with pride, not hidden away or wrapped in cotton wool, but open to all who wish to, literally, enjoy touching the past, like the Temple of Apollo right in the middle of the city by the market-place.

With your back to the sea, you can walk either straight ahead to the old town and the Duomo, or to the left through the Porto Marina and into the old town and Ortygia.  Either way, strolling around Syracuse at your leisure is sheer pleasure.

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Although the image of the fishermen mending their nets is captioned, I hope you notice the massive cruise ship in the background, the old and the new side by side, the old struggling to make a living, the new a disaster, or a dividend to a city?  The jury is still out on that one in Sicily.

As you leave the ruins of the 7th-century Temple of Apollo you will find yourself in the Corso Matteotti with its 14th-century Greek palace, and from here it is a short walk to the Piazza Archimede, opened in 1878 and dedicated to the Greek mathematics and physics genius, Archimedes (287-212 BC), and one of Syracuse’s most illustrious sons.   

In the centre of the Piazza is the beautiful Artemis Fountain by Giulio Moschetti (1906) dedicated to Diana the goddess of the Hunt (Diana was the Roman name of the Goddess, Artemis the Greek).  Appalled by the erotic pursuit of Alpheus the river god, Arethusa had asked the Goddess Diana for help: Diana then transformed Arethusa into a fountain which emerged on the nearby island of Ortygia, the core and oldest part of the Sicilian city, where you will find the spring named after Arethusa.  In the fountain, Alpheus peers from behind the goddess while the nymph is about to slip into the water below where, as the tale goes, she will blend with the stream before re-emerging in Ortygia.  Charging horses, Tritons and nymphs splash in the waters of the fountain and a good hour can be spent just walking around the admiring the work.

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 If you choose to go through the Porta Marina you will find yourself surrounded by fading Baroque Villas and Palaces facing the sea and hidden in the narrow alleyways, secretive dwellings with shades of a once glorious past still clinging to them.  Along this long, narrow promenade you will pass the Church of the Holy Spirit which is worth a visit if time allows (but remember you have the Duomo and Santa Lucia alle Badia to explore as well).

Despite the lack of beach facilities the area around here is popular with swimmers, and often you will see people diving off the rocks into the near transparent waters or sunbathing in what looks like dangerous places along this rocky foreshore.  

There is another church right by the Duomo, often missed by visitors because of the wonderful golden-coloured Duomo with its complex history which stands beside it, and this is the Santa Lucia alla Badia church which houses The Burial of Santa Lucia by Caravaggio, above the altar.  Caravaggio had arrived in Messina from Malta in December 1608 where he was commissioned to paint the Burial of Santa Lucia for the church of the same name: he completed this in less than a month.

It is difficult to see this picture because the church is kept fairly dark – I presume to preserve the painting – and no photography is allowed.  

And with all the sight-seeing, don’t forget to stop occasionally for a snack at one of the many good cafes and restaurants around (very much cheaper in the modern part of the city, by the way), and make sure to have an ice-cream and that Sicilian favourite, a Granita.





My recent trip to Syracuse gave me lots of material for posts but as I have written before about this Sicilian city I thought that this time I would hone in on the Archaeological Park of Neapolis which holds Syracuse’s most important Greek and Roman remains.  The Park covers approximately 240 square metres and the Greek and Roman periods are divided by a green, tranquil oasis in the midst of the ruins, called Viale Paradiso.

Between the two cultures, through the Viale Paradaiso.

The Park came into being between 1952 and 1955 with the idea of bringing together all the monuments, pillars and stones which previously had been located on various private properties and were not accessible to the public.  The result has been an outstanding success.

The Roman part dates back to the 3rd century AD and the Amphitheatre (seen below) is the largest in Sicily at 140 x 190 metres, and it is recorded that the first performance of Aeschylus’ Etnean Women was performed here in 476 BC.  To avoid this turning into a history lesson, I shall leave the images, with captions, to speak for themselves.

The Roman Amphitheatre which originally had a pool in the centre. Gladiators and animals entered from tunnels left and right.

Not only was the amphitheatre used for drama: political life was played out here too, especially the assemblies in which all citizens participated.

One of the tunnels through which the animals and gladiators would have entered the amphitheatre.
Part of the Roman remains at the Archeological Park of Syracuse, Sicily.


The Greek Theatre has more to offer in the way of remains (but excavations are still ongoing on the Roman side), possibly because it is mostly carved from the rock and is in a certain sense permanent and incapable of being seriously damaged.  There are 8 stairways to the top of the theatre with various walkways running along the seats.  At the top is a rectangular terrace sculpted from the rock dating back to when it was first built. 

cave of the nympheam
Cave of the Nymphaeum

Caves and niches in the walls of the terrace would suggest offerings to honour the Gods or the Heroes, the above Cave of the Nymphaeum being one of them.  This 6-metre deep cave takes its name from the large basin covered with a vaulted ceiling in which a small waterfall tumbles originating from a branch of the ancient Greek aqueduct.  Statues discovered of the Muses dating from the 2nd-century BC are now on display in the Regional Archeological Museum.  


The Spanish carried off much of the remains in the 16th century but what is left is still impressive

The Ear of Dionysius

Possibly the most interesting and popular sites in the Park.  While this looks like a natural cave it is really the result of tons of material having been extracted from the quarry of which it was a part, over many centuries.  The large cave known as the Ear of Dionysius is 65 metres long and 501 metres wide, narrowing towards the top.  The name was given to it by the painter Caravaggio who visited in the 17th century (and whose painting of St. Lucia hangs in the small church by the Duomo) and who thought its shape resembled that of a human ear.  Popular tradition has it that the cave had been used by a local tyrant to imprison his enemies whose whispers he could hear from the small opening at the top.  I like this version.  Myths are always more fascinating than facts.

Another view of the Cave of the Nymphaeum

Macumba in Rio

A sleepless New Year’s Eve night led me to the BBC’s Radio 4 where the World News was describing scenes at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.  Over one million people were there, it was reported.

My mind flew back to my own New Year’s Eve on that beach, back in the nineties.  We had gone down late afternoon to see what the local scene was like, having booked our table, laid out our fancy clothes for the Gala Dinner and put some champagne on ice for later.  We took only a few dollars with us, just enough for a coffee or two, because Rio then was a dangerous place and alcohol was flowing fairly freely.  Nor did we take our cameras for the same reason.

We didn’t return to the hotel until early next morning, at about 6 a.m. I think, but it was one of the best nights of my life, certainly the most memorable and the best New Year’s Eve ever.  No matter that we missed our New Year’s Eve dinner, champagne and party hats – what we had experienced was something raw and real: it was electrifying.

This is what I wrote shortly afterwards (and I’m sorry I have no photos to illustrate what I’m writing about):

The atmosphere was electric.  Yesterday the city had felt like any other Latin city, but tonight was different.  Tonight it was no longer Latin, familiar and accessible, but African and strange.

This pulsating city is home to two potent factors that combine to produce the drama that occurs on New Year’s Eve in Rio – a youth culture of music and carnival and an older one of belief in ancient Gods allied to the Catholic saints of the original Portuguese conquerors.  These two cultures meet in Macumba, a powerful cult based on old beliefs and pagan rites, where the Christian saints are given attributes of the African deities brought to Brazil with the slaves.  Described as the Brazilian voodoo, it’s a mistake to dismiss it lightly.

Macumba is a matriarchal religion with the officiating priests being women.  They had been setting up their tents since midday ready for tonight when the five-mile stretch of beach would be converted to a canopied village of churches, counselling-chambers and sickrooms when they would be called upon to cast spells, cure sicknesses and console the sorrowful. 

The priestesses were huge women dressed totally in white from their shoes to the white kerchiefs on their heads,  Above the dresses, their black faces glowed in the light from the many candles.  Men play a humble role in these ceremonies and tonight they were acting as servers, replenishing and lighting the huge, strangely sweet-smelling cigars the priestesses chain-smoke in order to encourage the Gods to visit.

The beach had been filling up steadily since dusk, and now, an hour before midnight, there was standing room only.  The beat of the drums had been a constant throb in the air since noon for the musicians of the Samba Schools use this occasion as a dress rehearsal for the Carnival in February.

Around me, magical powers were being invoked.  Love potions were distilled, prayers said for sick relatives and friends, and secret desires were whispered in consultations with the priestesses.

In the circle of brightness formed by the lights from one canopied area, a young man writhed convulsively in the grip of a strange power, the heavy beat of the drums adding to the frenzy of his movements.  The heat from the burning candles, the press of bodies, the rhythmic chanting of the white-robed woman who circled the body in a spinning motion and the heady aroma of the smoke from the sweet cigars were hypnotic.  The eyes of the young man glazed over as the slid to the ground in a trance.  Two male acolytes picked him up and carried him to his family who sat outside the circle.  They were smiling and happy as they sat waiting for him to recover.  Obviously, for them, the magic had worked.

A circle of light marked other petitioners whispering requests.  A nod from the priestess and another votary entered.  The priestess placed her hands on the woman’s head, took another cigar and began to spin around her.  Round and round until the petitioner too started to move, her body circling from the waist until it seemed one half would divorce from the other.  Faster and faster the priestess turned, her feet moving rhythmically and her whole body a crescendo of power.

The tempo quickened, the atmosphere became charged, bystanders became affected, fell into a trance and collapsed.  One elegantly gowned and bejewelled lady, an onlooker from the hotel opposite the beach, fell crashing to the ground as a power beyond her took control and she too was reduced to a writhing, moaning bundle of Haute Couture.  I felt the immense power of Macumba.  I shifted nervously and kept my eyes studiously averted from the white figure, afraid of what she might do, afraid of what I might do.

Suddenly, there was a cry and the woman in the centre slumped to the ground.  The priestess bent and spoke to her; she didn’t respond or move.  A single wave of the hand and the helpers picked the woman up and carried her down to the sea where she was immersed in the cooling, restorative waters.  The onlookers hardly took their eyes from the priestess.

The drums grew more frenzied as midnight approached but business continued unabated beside the canopied tents.  Gangsters and grandmothers, transvestites and toddlers were all fervently dancing the samba.  The beach was a heaving, pulsing mass of bodies moving to the same rhythm.  Increasing in size were the groups by the water’s edge where the recovery of those who had succumbed to the spells went on.

And now the flower-sellers arrived, peddling their wares to the crowds on the beach, for by tradition white flowers are thrown into the waves at midnight to appease the Goddess.  If the offerings are carried out to sea, then Iemanja, Goddess of the Sea, is pleased and will accept them, but if the tide carries them back to land, then she is displeased and the year will be a bad one.

Friends and families had set themselves up and had staked out areas in which to lay out their food and drink, and the presents they would send Iemanja at midnight. Some were pathetically poor, some rich, but all had the same sense of what Iemanja wanted – cigars, wine, fruit and bread.  Those from the favelas, the shanty-towns that crawl up the hillsides and surround the city, had less to offer – perhaps a half-smoked cheroot, a slice of papaya or a little wine in the bottom of a bottle, but this Goddess is not greedy.

There was a moment of panic when it looked as though the little boats wouldn’t sail and people rushed headlong into the sea to make an artificial tide on which they would float.  Others jumped into full-sized boats which they had left ready and pushed their little gift-laden craft before them in the hope that once far enough out they would sail on.  And now, as the candles flickered on the bobbing boats, thousands of white carnations came flying through the air their blossoms carpeting the sea like snow.  The perfume of the flowers mixed with the smoke from the cigars was a rich and power opiate.

The drums played on until dawn.  As the sun came up some little boats could be seen floating ominously back towards the shore. With that resilience that keeps the Cariocas forever optimistic they were re-launched by their owners immediately.

Later I learned there had been an estimated one million people on Copacabana Beach that night.  I hope the Goddess answered some of their prayers: I hoped the magic worked. 

Something worked for me though. A couple of hours ago I searched YouTube to see if last night’s spectacle had been caught. It had, but there was a lack. There were had BIG screens, pounding music from electronic devices and everyone was taking selfies and jumping up and down. I know it sounds smug, but … no camera, no money, no ‘phone, no tablet, just total immersion is something otherworldly gave us something to treasure for the rest of our lives, images that are not on my phone but are burned on my mind.


A Gift Box of a very Special Ginseng Root

It used to be the root that made people give that nudge and wink smile that relegated the Ginseng root to the realms of sexual innuendo, it’s popularity relying more on its reputation as an aphrodisiac than a health supplement. Promotions along the lines of Appeases the Thirst of Women and Activates Manly Functions kept the root firmly in the field of sexual problems.

Nowadays, however, ginseng is recognized as having qualities that stimulate all senses and it is even credited with preventing breakdowns in both health and the nervous system. These claims may sound outlandish but, to the believer, the root is the antidote to everything. Two grammes a day is the recommended dose to keep one healthy and this can be taken in many forms. However, the jury is still out on the efficacies claimed for the product.

Some buyers place great faith in the shape of the root

Geumsan, the Capital of Ginseng

Geumsan, a small town just three hours south of Seoul, is the undisputed ginseng capital of South Korea where the 10-day Ginseng Fair and Market is attended by thousands and tons of the root is sold. Here the emphasis is solely on the plant with hundreds of tons of the product on sale as well as by-products of the root – ginseng tea, chocolates, cereal bars, jam, shampoo, soap and face creams.

It can be bought bottled, dried, raw, peeled, sliced, shaved, or steamed. A big trade is also done in ginseng wine and chicken gingseng soup. The wine at 13% alcohol has the obvious effect of perking most people up very quickly, proof, to the believers, that the root is working.

Different types of Ginseng

The Ginseng Fair and Market at Geumsan, Korea

The emphasis at the fair is on health and well being and Geumsan is the place to snap up not only fresh raw ginseng but the processed products.

At the fair there is a doctor pavilion and visitors can experience traditional treatments – including acupuncture – and discuss the ginseng effect with specialists. Many oriental doctors are there to lecture on the medical effects of the root and there are special pavilions where they treat children for various childhood illnesses. South Koreans believe there is nothing that ginseng cannot cure.

The Best Ginseng

The Raw Roots of Ginseng

The best ginseng is considered to be South Korean, opinions that come from Hong Kong and China, major importers of the crop. This has a lot to do with the shape of the root which the Chinese take to resemble the human body (ginseng from other countries resembles a carrot). It is said that it is the acidic soil in Geumsan that contributes so much to the quality of the ginseng as well as the heavier than average rainfall.

The plant is quite pretty above ground

The people of Geumsan can convince you of anything – their marketing skills are way above what anyone would expect from this small town – but they emphasize that Ginseng should be taken over a long period. So whether you take the root as an aphrodisiac, for its health properties, or to cure some illness or disease, remember that it does not have an immediate effect.

Ginseng is available in all countries from health shops and other specialist shops, but to find a variety of the root, seek out the Chinatowns of western countries where it will be found in abundance.